China Spacecraft Attempting First Lunar Landing on Dark Side of the Moon

A full moon over Moscow on November 23. MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images

China is making its final preparations before launching the first spacecraft to ever attempt a landing on the dark side of the Moon.

The Chang'e 4 spacecraft, named after the Chinese moon goddess, is scheduled to launch around 1:30 p.m. ET Friday, The Guardian reported. It will carry a robotic lander and rover to the moon's unexplored South Pole–Aitken basin, the largest and deepest impact crater in the solar system.

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Friday's launch will take place at China's Xichang Satellite Launch Center in the southwestern province of Sichuan. If all goes according to plan, the lander and rover will descend to the Moon's surface in early January.

The landing would be the first-ever human mission to the dark side of the Moon, which has a different composition to sites on the near side where previous missions have landed, The Associated Press explained.

The South Pole–Aitken Basin is more than 15,000 miles across and 8 miles deep. Though officials revealed few details about the exact mission site, a study published in May by the Planetary Science Institute at the China University of Geosciences said the Chang'e 4 would analyze the Von Kármán crater, which sits deep inside the huge basin.

More than a ton of equipment will be landed on the lunar surface. The instruments on the rover will allow researchers to study local lunar geology and analyze the solar wind. Another experiment will test how well plants grow in the Moon's weak gravity.

Ye Quanzhi, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology, told the South China Morning Post that the huge basin is "one of the largest known impact structures in the solar system, suggesting it was formed from a gigantic impact and could have excavated a lot of materials from the interior. If Chang'e 4 is able to sample these materials, we will get to learn the composition of the Moon's interior."

Mission control will need to grapple with communication difficulties, given the spacecraft will travel to the side of the Moon, which is always facing away from Earth. Messages to and from the Chang'e 4 will be bounced off China's Queqiao satellite, which is in orbit above the dark side of the Moon.

A mission to the lunar surface can also allow scientists to use the Moon as an observation post for the Earth and sun, while its distance from home means radio astronomy can be performed without interference from terrestrial broadcasts, The Guardian noted.

Chang'e 4 is a major advance for the Chinese lunar program. The first two Chang'e missions sent probes into orbit around the Moon, while the third successfully landed a lander and rover on the Moon's near side.

This mission will be followed by Chang'e 5 and 6, which will attempt to collect lunar samples and bring them back to Earth. Chang'e 5 is due to launch in December 2019.